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How to bring a rusty cast-iron skillet back to life |

How to bring a rusty cast-iron skillet back to life

The most cherished item in my kitchen, my cast-iron fryer was passed down to me from my grandmother. She fried the very best chicken and smothered steak, and poured her love into every fryer-full. Naturally, I think of her when I use it, and I feel her sweet spirit working with me as I create for others dishes with love always an ingredient, too.

Although it had been gingerly and cautiously moved from home to home over the years, it found itself in storage a few months during the last move, and humidity had caused some light rust. I’ve restored many cast-iron skillets over the years, but this one was special, so I wanted to refurbish it so it could sear just as it did in its earliest glory.


Perhaps you’ve inherited a family heirloom, too. Or found a great deal at a thrift shop. Or purchased a new cast-iron pan straight from the factory. I have tips for the best ways to restore cast-iron to its original utility for frying and sauteing.

Caring for cast iron gives many people pause, but it need not. A little elbow grease, some pre-emptive care and considered maintenance can restore and maintain a pan you’ll reach for again and again.

Why use cast iron

Once cast iron is hot, it stays hot, and when food is added, it returns to full heat quickly. This makes it an excellent choice for searing meat, seafood and vegetables. Slow-cooked foods benefit from the insulated pot keeping food evenly hot while cooking, and using less stove heat in the process.





Pro tip: While heating, cast iron can be an uneven conductor of heat, creating hot and cold spots. Preheat your seasoned cast iron pan before adding food. This will prevent food from sticking.

When not to use cast iron

When cast iron has been seasoned over years, that thick coating can withstand some degree of acidity, like chili-cooking for instance. However, cooking acidic foods such as tomatoes, vinegar and citrus can cause pitting in unseasoned or newly seasoned pans, and pan sauces as well as stick-prone foods such as eggs and light cuts of seafood will benefit from a pan that has been properly seasoned and used regularly to form a nonstick coating.

Pro tip: Transfer foods cooked in cast iron to refrigerator containers before storing.

How to season a cast-iron pan

Even a new-from-the-factory pot, though probably lightly seasoned, will require additional preparation before cooking.

Wash your new cast-iron pan in warm, soapy water with a sponge or nylon scrub pad. Yes! Just this once. After towel-drying, warm on top of the stove to remove any remaining moisture. Move to the next step without delay— rusting can occur quickly with naked cast iron.

Heat oven to 425 degrees, placing a pan on the second rack. Using an oil such as vegetable, canola, grapeseed, shortening or my throwback preference, lard, apply a thin coat to interior and exterior surfaces, including the handle. Buff the oil into the pan using paper towels until barely shiny. Place the pan, inverted, on the top rack, with pan underneath to catch any errant drips.

Allow to “bake” for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven (Be careful! Hot pan!) and recoat and buff as above, repeating this coating and baking procedure three more times.

Remove from oven. Your pan is ready to use! The best way to keep that seasoning and build it into the thick, impermeable nonstick surface pined for is to use it. Each time you use your cast-iron skillet, fats bond with the surface and harden the seasoning coating.

Pro tip: Always allow pans to dry, preferably over a burner, and cool down fully before storing.

Maintaining seasoned cast iron

The best-seasoned cast-iron pan is the one used often and maintained properly. Remember to avoid using soap or especially placing in a dishwasher. Wash under hot water, carefully scraping with nylon or wood utensils to remove any stuck-on food. For stubborn spots, sprinkle with salt and scrub with nylon pad. Dry thoroughly, setting over heat to ensure no hidden moisture. If any bare spots show, season them again, coating with a thin layer of oil and heating in a 425 degree oven for 30 minutes.

Store cast iron completely dry, uncovered, in a dry, humidity-free place. I use my oven and remove it when baking other foods.

Vintage cast iron vs. modern cast iron

There is an advantage to hunting down a vintage cast-iron pan in good condition over a new pan from the box. Vintage cast iron boasts a smoother finish than modern methods, thus making it easier to create that coveted patina and impermeable seasoning. Look for pots or pans with only slight wear— heavy pitting, rust or erosion will prevent proper seasoning, and a cracked cast-iron pan is nonfunctional.

Pro tip: Occasionally small cracks in vintage cookware will hide beneath old seasoning. Rap lightly on the bottom with a metal spoon and listen for a light ping. A heavy, dull sound indicates cracks.

How to refurbish a vintage cast-iron pan

Wash pan with warm soapy water, using fine-grade steel wool or a stiff bristled brush to remove any rust and/or old seasoning. Rinse well. Wash again, using a nylon scrubbing pad or the firm side of a sponge to remove any remaining residue and return pan to its original gunmetal gray finish. Continue with seasoning steps used for a new pan.

Pro tip: If you run into stubborn residue that is not easily removed with soap and water and a little elbow grease, try using an oven cleaner, leaving on pan according to package directions. Be certain to wear gloves, protect your skin and eyes when using lye-based cleansers.


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